No Boundaries: An Interview with Ali Sahmel and Emily McElwreath
The art world has a tendency to forgo boundaries. Living, working, and scheming all in the same building in East Williamsburg, Ali Sahmel and Emily McElwreath are a prime example of how romance and professionalism can overlap and create a partnership built to last. McElwreath's vast experience in high-end art advisory and Sahmel's title as one of the few master chromists in New York City solidify the two as a power couple. This label is not lost on the two, who have recently teamed together to join the handful of art galleries popping up in East Williamsburg. In the midst of working with the couple to organize STP Group Show 3, STP Blog Editor in Chief Lauryn-Ashley Vandyke pops into their apartment across the hall from the gallery for a conversation about what it's like to mix business with pleasure.
LA: How would you two describe the work that you do, and does it ever overlap?
Ali Sahmel: There's Pegasus Prints, and there's Sidel McElwreath. Pegasus is a print shop studio creating and collaborating with artists.
Emily McElwreath: With Sidel McElwreath, it’s art advisory and curation. I've never been with someone as involved in the art community as I am. There is so much overlap. We are either working with the same artist, or there’s a person I'd always wanted to work with, and Ali introduced me, or vice versa. The overlap was super beneficial for both of our careers.
LA: Did you guys meet through art?
EM: We met on Tinder. Living in New York City in the queer community, it's hard to meet people. Plus, we're so busy. I wasn't bar hopping, meeting people.
LA: And there are no lesbian bars anymore.
AS: Well there’s Ginger’s, in Park slope. There’s Cubbyhole. They're still there.
LA: What was your first date?
AS: It was an Irish pub type place in Clinton Hill. They have the best popcorn there. It was just a block away from my house. I was like, if we’re gonna meet, you’re coming to me.
EM: We started dating right away, as lesbians do. The synergy was there immediately. I had been in business for four years. I was at the Brant Foundation as director of communications and education for six years. Then, I went out on my own and started my art advisory. Your first five years of going out on your own, you're an infant. Although I was still green, when Ali was like, I want to start my own silk-screen studio,I’d had the experience of starting a small business.
LA: You’re both workaholics.
EM: Ali's far more organized than I am, but in terms of time in, we're both constantly working.
AS: We work a lot. Making things, but also looking at shows, studio visits, researching, staying informed.
LA: When I think of the dynamic between me and my work husband, Ben, the reason it works is because we both have our own thing. It overlaps in that we support each other, and we get to collaborate, but we're always equals. There's never a weird power dynamic in our relationship.
EM: Being equal is the only way it works. We both have our own separate things that exist without the other person. Those two things are going to exist, even if we don't as a couple.
AS: We offer different things which benefit the other. Emily's more outgoing and assertive. I'm more hands-on and creative. It's a good team.
EM: Launching the art space, Pegasus Gallery, was a no brainer. It used to be an office space for the previous owner of the studio. We came up here and we were like, why don't we have some sort of experimental, invitation only, art space where we can bring in young curators and emerging artists.
AS: Not as much structure as a Chelsea Gallery.
EM: Downstairs (Pegasus Prints Shop) is the bread-and-butter business. The gallery gives us the freedom to play. That's where the overlap is- we're co-directors of the gallery.
LA: What are your goals with both of your projects?
AS: Stepping outside of the box, not creating your traditional print, experimenting with different mediums, paints, and ink. I want to get something new and fresh, so I’m experimenting with airbrush or with printing on different types of substrates.
EM: I’ve worked with everything from blue chip artists to total emerging artists. I deal with the blue chip pieces so I have the opportunity to take chances with emerging artists. I love being able to go to the collector that has a Julian Schnabel in their living room and say, check this artist out. They just graduated and I want you to invest in their talent.
LA: How has digital innovation affected printmaking and selling and purchasing artwork?
AS: Digital printing is easier and faster. It’s like reading the newspaper versus picking up your phone. With that said, it makes me appreciate it more. For me, printmaking is a completely different aesthetic that I'm naturally more drawn to than digital.With the silkscreen process, you see the hand; the tedious nature of creating something.
EM: In terms of digital takeover across the board, we're 40 year old women. It doesn't come organically to us. In college, I was still going to the library to use their desktop to write my essays, and actually printing them with a printer to hand it in. It's a constant learning curve.
LA: There's a new appreciation for printmaking. People crave that physical process.
AS: Yes. To see the trace of your hand, the manual creation of something, versus hitting buttons all day and just spitting something out.
EM: There's always going to be room for the authentic, classic, beauty of tangible art. It's like a little black dress. It doesn't ever go out of style. There's an element of the fine art world, especially silk screen, that doesn't change. Luckily we are dealing with fine art, which for the most part remains tangible and separate from digital takeover.
LA: What did you guys learn about each other through the process of teaching Emily about printmaking?
AS: Emily's very impatient. She has a difficult time multitasking. We have a different eye.
EM: However, we work well together. We have to. To be able to sustain two small businesses, we both had to help each other out and move into parts of ourselves that are uncomfortable. I'm not that detail oriented. Allie is so organized, patient and all those things that go into being a printmaker. I don't have those. I'm scrappy, I'm fast, I'm impatient. I want results right away. We're very different, but I'm still in the shop, racking the prints and helping her, because we have to. It's free help. When you're lovers and you work together, it's like, I need you for five hours downstairs because I'm not paying someone to come in today.
AS: When we meet with artists, too, we just bring forth different concepts and respond to artists differently. It works due to the differences.
EM: I've had to learn to take second place to Allie when we’re [in the print shop]. It's Allie's studio, and I'm in it. That does not come naturally for me. I'm bossy. I like to be in charge. I've gotten to the point where I don't try to do that in the studio anymore, because I don't know what the fuck I'm doing. That's a big learning curve.
LA: When you love someone so much and you're working together, there's never any ugh, I can't believe they're making me do this. You want to be there.
EM: Yeah. Everything bleeds into one. There's no we're doing each other a favor by doing this.
AS: Emily comes down and works with me in the print shop, but also, when she’s doing studio visits, I come and add my insight or criticism in some way. Emily spills into my world and I spill into her world.
EM: I've gotten 10 times cooler dating Ali. She’s like, why don't you come with me to meet this young artist? Then when we’re there she’s like, I'm a chromist. They're like, oh my god.
LA: What is your favorite thing about working with your partner and what is your least favorite thing?
AS: I love always being around Emily. She's so fun and funny. At the same time, it's hard always being together; working together, living together, going to studio visits-
LA: And you don’t have doors in your apartment.
AS: Right. So I value my alone time, my space. I'm a Gemini. I'm contradicting myself. At the same time, I want to be alone.
EM: I'll oftentimes make the call, like, I'm going to go away for the night. I'll feel that we need a beat.
The best thing about working together is that Ali's my favorite person. I want to be around her all the time. We're talking about working together, living together, and getting through a pandemic together. It's created a level of intimacy that I didn't know existed. It's also two women. I can't even express how much work needs to go into understanding one another when it's two women together all the time.
LA: Emotions, sensitivity, thoughtfulness. Women understand; they see so much.
EM: Yeah. I don't want to see it all. I want to be that dumb dude who's like, what's the matter? My favorite thing is being around her, and my least favorite thing probably has to do with me, and my lack of patience and ability to let go of the reins. That's really hard for me. Sometimes I'm unpleasant to be around. I’m trying to work on that.
LA: I feel like everyone says communication, communication, communication. No one ever says, let things go.
EM: You have to let things go. That's such a good point. We do our best when we're able to accept one another for who we are. When it's not good, we hone in on every little thing. It becomes, why'd you do that? What's going on? Let's talk about it. Sometimes there's nothing to talk about. Also, we're 40, this is who we are. It might get a little better, but there won’t be some huge upheaval of our personalities.
LA: Can you talk about building trust with each other, but also, the artists you work with?
EM: It was important for me, when I started my own business, to build relationships with the art community. Especially the emerging, mid-career art community. Go into those studios, get to know the artists on a personal level. With that comes a level of trust. These artists are allowing me in their spaces. They're allowing me into their lives. They're allowing me to sell work for them. I always liked this quote: Love comes easy. You don't have to earn love. You have to earn trust, and respect. You can really dig someone, love them, but the trust and respect comes after. That takes a while.
AS: When you're building and nurturing these relationships, the dialogue is a little bit more at ease. Concepts come naturally, it just kind of flourishes. The more you build relationships with artists, things grow and evolve.
EM: It's creating like a family for ourselves. My favorite part of our relationship is getting to be mama bears, creating this family of artists, creatives, makers, thinkers, and having a physical hub for people to come to.
LA: How do you build a creative community through the work that you do?
EM: First of all, it takes time. Time, and experience. I'm a huge networker. I'm always connecting the dots. You have to make it a priority to meet people; go to the shows, go to the openings, go to the events. Be authentic. Instagram has allowed us the opportunity to feel connected with one another. There's a lot of stuff that I hate about Instagram and social media at large, but I love more than I hate.
AS: It's accessible, easy, and efficient.
LA: You can't have one without the other. Right now, at least.
EM: 50% of the artists that I do studio visits with, I'm introducing myself via Instagram. Like, this artist told me to check you out. I'd love to see your work in person.
Plus, we get to see what LA is doing at 1:00 AM on a Tuesday. We're not going to be at that restaurant with you, because we're on our 10th dream, but I get to wake up and be like look at what LA did last night.
LA: I love Instagram. I didn't have one for 6 years. I needed the break, to learn to love myself and to not find that validation through other people.
AS: Did you delete your account and then come back?
LA: I deleted it in 2016.
AS: It’s like deleting part of your identity, then reappearing. It's your digital identity.